The past few years we have seen a consistent number of young teens, especially girls, committing suicide after suffering consistent bullying from peers. Sometimes it comes as a result of behavior on the teen’s part, but this essay is not about victim-blaming. It is, however, some suggestions based on the work of Erik Erikson and his ideas on human development that might help young people get through the juggernaut that is middle and high school social life.
Erikson and psychosocial development
Erik Erikson believed in the influence of one’s surrounding on their human development. He believed that we resolve crises based on how we pass through those stages of development. I have a pretty solid, albeit not comprehensive, knowledge of Erikson’s perspective and surmise that we did not pass through them once and then forever and always our crisis in this area of development is over; rather, we continue to move through them and resolve them throughout our lifetime.
Trust versus Mistrust
Erikson believed that as infants we look to our caregivers for support and for meeting our needs. Those needs can be emotional or even more basically, food, trauma, basic help and so forth. The individual develops a sense of trust that a caregiver will come to their aid. For the teen, it is the basis for trusting those around them to meet their needs. Parents must ensure that they have established a strong foundation for being there unconditionally for their children early so when it comes time to share their most vulnerable events – when they are being picked on – they feel they can come and talk to their caregiver.
Autonomy versus Self-Doubt
This stage begins at about 2/3 years of age. There is a reason why some children become ornery at this age. Imagine having all these wants and ideas and opinions but caregivers aren’t always prepared to fulfill those wants and needs and certainly cannot entertain all the opinions of a three year old. However, giving selections from which the child can choose will instill the idea that they can make their own decisions and think about their choices. If their choices are always made for them or they are consistently corrected for their choices, a sense of self-doubt develops and, later on in their childhood, the teen will doubt themselves, their judgment and their choices – and possibly look to others to make choices for them. The child who is allowed to make choices herself and can count on the caregiver to be there, without judgment, to support her through the bumps and bruises of bad choices will develop a sense of strength and not be easily led astray.
Initiative versus guilt
At 3-5 years of age, after successfully resolving the autonomy crisis, the child takes the initiative and makes decisions on his own. The caregiver can reinforce this behavior by providing instances where choice can be made and then acknowledging and valuing the decision made by the child. However, if the child is made to feel bad about making decisions on his own, a sense of guilt and doubt can result. For the teen, this stage sets the foundation for being given opportunities to make decisions and then having those decisions respected and rewarded with acknowledgement and praise. They won’t always make the right decisions but that is why we have established a sense of trust in the child early so that guidance and re-direction aren’t seen as criticism but rather, wisdom out of a place of love and support. Having initiative might ensure that the teen will make their own decisions and not be led by others into negative behavior. It also means that the teen will not be made to feel guilty over decisions, good or bad, that they have made because they are the ones who made them and will stand behind them. This stance also instills in the teen that the decisions they make will be decisions for which they will be held accountable.
Industry versus inferiority
Some students who have been in psychology courses with me have identified this stage as the most important in developing a healthy adult. I am on the undecided – I think they are all equally important – but I appreciate their logic. If you feel like you have the support of a caregiver and they create an environment where you can make decisions on your own and those decisions are honored and valued, then you are more likely to make decisions on your own and feel confident in them. Whether it is being pressured into sex or teased relentlessly, the child who feels supported, makes decisions on their own using common sense and stands behind those decisions and actually makes decisions that might not be popular because they feel strong in their choice, is more likely to withstand bullying – even cyber bullying for which there seems to be no safe place to hide. The child who is made to feel bad about the choices they have made, including statements like – “see, I told you so. Just do what I say and it will be fine”- will feel inferior and not make their own decisions and certainly will not stand behind the decisions they make.
Identity versus Role Confusion
Here is the crucial time for teens. At this stage in Erikson’s model, the individual develops a sense of who they are, or they resolve the crisis negatively and do not establish the kind of person they are going to be and may flounder for a while. But that is the crux of the decision. Those who flounder may very well be led astray because they have no sense of who they are and what they believe in so they may not base their decisions on a sense of integrity to their character but more so to the character for which they are receiving attention.
What this means for the teens who are being bullied or, especially, young ladies who are bullied and feel there is no way out is this: we have to instill in them from a very early age that they can come to us for anything and we will listen without judgment and not undervalue their perspective. I have personally heard parents say that their teen is “so dramatic.” That may very well be true but that is the level at which they are thinking. This belief has been referred to as the adolescent fairy tale and adolescent egocentrism when they cannot understand why their caregivers cannot see how important and life changing an issue is to them. I recall a scene in, The Breakfast Club, when the group is in a circle and Allison (the head case) tells the group that, “it’s inevitable. When we grow up, our hearts die.”
Bu we also need to teach our children to take criticism and harassment with a grain of salt. I have an adage that some might argue isn’t worth even a grain of salt but I believe it is true. There is a reason why I don’t get upset if someone bets me to the basket when playing basketball, or steps on my shoes on the Max or even says bad things about me or “my mom.” Because I don’t need your respect – I bring my own. The reason my students do what is expected isn’t their respect for me personally, it is because they will not pass the class if they do not do the things that the University and the state of Oregon have decided they need to do to demonstrate their proficiency. And I don’t treat them with respect because they have “earned it” – it is because I understand for my students to do well I need to create a plan, teach to that plan and then assess fairly to determine if they have retained enough to meet the aforementioned state and university standards. I play a small but important role in facilitating that progress but I don’t need my students to “respect” me.
Having said that, I hope my son won’t be misguided by “friends” or harangued to the point of giving up because he longs for their respect. He has his own and he will have strength of character and pride in himself and his family that will surpass any hurtful names or pernicious gossip that may be headed his way. When I was I high school, there was a rumor I was gay because the clothes I wore were hand-me-downs and sometimes quite tight. If I didn’t have a family who loved me, a small circle of real friends and pride in myself – it may have hurt me greatly. This was early 80’s and we didn’t have LGBT communities and pride groups on campuses – if you were gay, good luck.
If he is maligned for whatever life choices he makes, he will have the strength of character and support of his parents to stand behind his decisions. That seems to be a common thread among several of the young ladies who have made bad choices and then were shamed or embarrassed by their school chums’ response. Liam won’t be. He will own his decision and stand behind it. But he won’t stand alone. I wonder how many of the young ladies especially didn’t go to their families because they didn’t think they could.
I don’t have all the answers; not even sure the answers I have are the right ones. But I know that the tragedy that unfolds day after day needs lots of voices to chime in so that we can have a discussion and solve the problem as best we can.